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Skin Cancer Awareness Month: how to best protect yourself from harmful UV radiation

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- May is Skin Cancer Awareness month, and KRDO caught up with dermatologist Dr. Renata Prado to discuss the best ways to protect ourselves from harmful UV radiation, and the statistics surrounding the nation's most commonly diagnosed cancer.

The world is currently still dealing with the COVID19 pandemic, but skin cancer is also seen as an epidemic in the US. How bad is it?
Skin cancer is incredibly prevalent. An estimated 5 million new cases of skin cancer will occur in the United States this year, and, at current rates, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime. This makes skin cancer the most common cancer in the United States. In fact, it affects more people than all other cancers combined.

How do we recognize skin cancer?
Skin cancer is actually one of the easiest cancers to find and diagnose because it usually begins where you can see it. Different skin cancers may present in different manners. In general, if you develop any new lesion or mole that is growing, bleeding, scabbing, scaly, changing color, or not healing, you should see your dermatologist. A board-certified dermatologist is trained to spot suspicious lesions when doing a full-body exam, which literally looks from head to toe, diagnoses it by a biopsy, and treat it.

How does skin cancer affect my health?
Most skin cancers are curable especially when diagnosed early. Early diagnosis and treatment allow higher cure rates and smaller scars. Different skin cancers can affect one’s health in a different manner. Some skin cancers can grow to cause significant local tissue destruction. Some skin cancers, like melanomas, can spread to the body and cause death. We estimate to lose > 20,000 patients this year to skin cancer.

What does melanoma look like?
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanomas usually present as a brown to black spot that changes in size, shape, or color. The ABCDE of melanoma includes Asymmetry, ill-defined or irregular Borders, variated Colors, a Diameter greater than a pencil eraser, and Evolving or changing site. Rarely, melanomas can be skin color and not pigmented.
• A is for asymmetry
• B is for border irregularity
• C is for color variation
• D is for diameter
• E is for evolution or change.

What causes skin cancer?
The primary cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light which damages the DNA with repeated exposure. It does not matter if the source of ultraviolet radiation is natural (sun) or artificial (tanning beds). People with chronic exposure to UV light, whether in the outdoors or in tanning booths, are at increased risk of developing skin cancer.

Is skin cancer preventable?
For most cases of skin cancer, that are associated with UV radiation, the answer is yes, this is a preventable disease. Prevention makes sense when talking about skin cancer, as it is relatively easy and proven to be effective.

How can I prevent skin cancers?
Prevention is performed with appropriate sun protection (avoiding the sun from 10 – 2, use of sunscreen, sun-protective clothing, hats, sunglasses). Preventive measures should be done daily all year round. It is also important to regularly visit your dermatologist for a complete skin check and to have any lesion that is not healing evaluated as soon as possible. The sooner a skin cancer is diagnosed, the more likely it is to be cured and to have a good final cosmetic outcome.

How should we choose our sunscreen, and how do we apply it?
Use sunscreen with sun protective factor (SPF) 30 or higher, and both UVA and UVB protection. More important than the actual SPF number, is wearing enough of it. Apply 1 ounce (1 shot glass) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside and 1 teaspoon to the face. Sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours, and after you swim or do things that make you sweat.

How do our precautions change at high altitudes?
The precautions are the same, but it is important to note that in high altitude, the intensity of the solar radiation is greater. UV intensity increases with altitude at a rate of 6% per 1000 ft. above sea level. So at our Colorado mountains, people may burn much faster than at sea level. At 10,000 ft., the sun’s intensity increases by 60%. On practical terms, it means that a person having an average complexion, with unprotected skin, would burn after only six minutes of sun exposure on a clear day at noon in Vail at 11,000 feet above sea level. The same person would develop sunburn after 25 minutes of noontime exposure in New York.

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Natalie Haddad

Natalie is a traffic reporter and MMJ for Good Morning Colorado and KRDO. You can learn more about her here.

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